Enslaved people lived in a world in which everything had a price. Even freedom. Freedom’s Currency follows enslaved people’s efforts to buy themselves out of slavery across the United States from the American Revolution to the Civil War. In the first comprehensive study of self-purchase in the nation, Julia Wallace Bernier reveals how enslaved people raised money, fostered connections, and made use of slavery’s systems of value and exchange to wrest control of their lives from those who owned them. She chronicles the stories of famous fugitives like Frederick Douglass, who, with the help of friends and supporters, purchased his freedom to protect himself against the continued legal claims of his enslavers and the possibility of recapture. She also shows how enslaved fathers like Lunsford Lane and mothers like Elizabeth Keckley tried to secure lives for their families outside of slavery.
Freedom’s Currency argues that freedom played a central role in the social and economic lives of the enslaved and in the ways that these aspects of their lives overlapped. This intimate portrait of community illuminates the complexity of enslaved people’s ideas about their place at the intersection of slavery and American capitalism and their attempts to value freedom above all. Given the stakes—liberation or remaining enslaved—it is an account of both triumph and devastating failure.
Julia Wallace Bernier is Assistant Professor of History at Washington & Jefferson College.